Performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are currently banned in elite competitive sport. In this essay I will argue that the reasons for their prohibition outlined in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) World Anti-Doping Code are absurd, with specific focus on WADAs claim that performance enhancing drugs are contrary to the spirit of sport. I will address WADAs criteria for a substance to be banned and its description of the spirit of sport. I will argue that PEDs are; neither a threat to the spirit of sport; nor are they at odds with it. I will conclude that as any substance in the world can meet one of the criteria for being banned and that as PEDs are not contrary to the spirit of sport as outlined by WADA their use should be allowed.
WADA decides which substances will and will not be banned on the basis that they must meet two out of the following three criteria: They must have the potential to increase sporting performance. Or they must represent and actual or potential risk to the athletes health. Or their use must be contrary to the spirit or sport (WADA, World Anti-Doping Code, p.32-3). However, as Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu state this allows athletes to take drugs that are harmful but not performance enhancing or seen as being contrary to the spirit of sport, like tobacco. It also allows athletes to take drugs like caffeine, which enhance performance but isn’t considered to be harmful to health or contrary to the spirit of sport (Foddy and Savulescu, Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sport, p.511). The wording of point two is particularly devious in the way it is so open, it states that a substance must represent ‘an actual or potential risk to health’. This allows for any substance in existence; too much water can potentially be harmful you. These criteria are absurd and allow us to see the reliance of WADA on the concept of the “spirit of sport” on which the decision to ban many substances can hinge.
The 2009 WADA code states that the ‘Anti-doping programs seek to preserve what is intrinsically valuable about sport. This intrinsic value is often referred to as “the spirit of sport”’ (WADA, Code, p.18). So what then is this all important spirit of sport that PED are threatening to rob us of? According to WADA the spirit of sport is characterized by the following values:
- Ethics, fair play and honesty
- Excellence in performance
- Character and education
- Fun and joy
- Dedication and commitment
- Respect for rules and laws
- Respect for self and other participants
- Community and solidarity (Ibid.)
But do PEDs really threaten the preservation of these values? Let us now address each point.
Ethics, Fair Play and Honesty
Firstly do PEDs threaten to remove ethics, fair play and honesty from sport? As outline by Savulescu above, there are many substances that athletes are allowed to take which are either harmful to them or performance enhancing that aren’t banned by WADA. Indeed there are many ethically questionable practices that exist in sport that aren’t banned. Is it ethical for children as young as five to be trained fulltime to become elite athletes in gymnastics, tennis players, weightlifting, and many other sports? Not only does it rob them of anything that could be described as a “normal childhood” but Peter Donnelly goes as far as to compare it to child labour, stating that children are subject to “excessive psychological and physiological stress” (Donnelly, CHILD LABOUR, SPORT LABOUR, p.390). Yet there are no regulations about such treatment of children or bans of it on ethical grounds. So ethically performance enhancement in itself doesn’t seem to be a problem for WADA, and indeed the issue of ethical practices aren’t traditional concerns for sport in general. As for fair play and honesty, anti-PED campaigners argue that allowing PEDs would create unfair pressure on “clean” athletes to use PEDs to keep up with their rivals who are using them, however this pressure already exists, all that allowing PEDs would do is make the drugs more open to testing and scrutiny creating a safer environment to use them, which I will expand upon in point two.
This is indeed an important issue however not all PEDs are a threat to health. Savulescu argues that rather than testing for PEDs we should be testing for health (Savulescu, Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport, p.668), and I believe this to be the answer to the PEDs problem because it allows athletes to increase their performance in the safest possible environment. Under this system the health of the athletes would be the main concern and this would surely be beneficial for everyone. If we were to test for health it would prevent any athlete competing who wasn’t physically healthy enough regardless of whether or not they had taken and PEDs. The irony of the current system is that it poses a far greater threat to the health of athletes than if PEDs were allowed and we only tested for health. This is due to the fact that, as Foddy and Savulescu put it, ‘Because doping is illegal, the pressure is to make performance enhancers undetectable, rather than safe.’ If PEDs were allowed the manufacturers would be able to openly display what was in their products and have them regulated for safety. Critics to this system may argue that athletes would still dope to unsafe levels and merely take drugs to mask their level of health, which is conceivably possible and athletes may indeed slip through the cracks in the system, but it is unlikely to be as many as who currently avoid detection taking potentially harmful substances. As leading anti-doping campaigner, Professor Benjt Saltin, said in an interview with the BBC in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics: ‘I would expect that most of the medal winners and finalists in [Olympic] endurance events to be on performance enhancing drugs’ (McGrath, Concerns Over Olympic Drug Test). So why not work with the athletes and attempt to make a safer environment.
Excellence in Performance
It is almost comical that WADA should include this in a list of things that PEDs are supposedly a threat to. Obviously excellence in performance is the very thing that athletes’ taking PEDs are striving to attain and have always been striving to attain. Indeed many PEDs merely recreate the results of existing training methods, Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone that stimulates red-blood cell production which allows more oxygen to be carried to muscles (Savulescu, Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport, p.667), and thus greatly increases endurance. Athletes can increase their red blood cell production by training at altitude or by using a hypoxic air machine (a machine that recreates conditions at high altitude), however these methods are relatively expensive compared to a syringe of EPO. Allowing PEDs would give athletes without the funding to use expensive training methods to get the same results by injecting EPO and thus would allow more athletes to achieve excellence in performance.
Character and Education
Advocates of the ban on PEDs will likely argue that sport is about building character and that PEDs are quick fixes that teach athletes they can find instant success inside of a syringe. This argument is rather naive in its assumptions that if PEDs were to be allowed in sport athletes wouldn’t need to train 7 days a week and commit to gruelling fitness regimes; you couldn’t merely give Dennis from Accounts an injection and watch him win le Tour de France. PEDs are a performance aid not a substitute for hard work and training. Education is also a key element to the use PEDs, particularly as they become an attractive option to younger and younger athletes. Young athletes need to be educated in regards to what the chemicals they put into their body are doing to them, in the same way that they are currently educated as to how drugs like alcohol and marijuana affect their bodies.
Fun and Joy
Whilst sport in general sport is indeed about the fun and joy one gets from participation when played by children or at a social level it would once again be naive to assume that sport at the elite level is about anything less than performance and victory. That is not to say that professional athletes don’t enjoy what they do, but they would likely enjoy it more if they were able to perform at a greater level than they currently do, PEDs would allow this. That is not to say that advocates of the ban on PEDs do not feel that the use of enhancers will not affect the joy of children. A report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 2000 stated that PEDs must be stamped out because “to the extent that our athletes are role models for our children, doping practices compromise our children’s health and safety” (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Winning at Any Cost: Doping in Olympic Sports, p.18). This argument that children will imitate athletes using PEDs because they are their role models is like saying they will become vigilantes because they idolize Batman. Children are influenced in their actions by their parents and peers, whilst they may try to play football like Ronaldo in the backyard, that doesn’t mean they will mimic is seven day a week training schedule, follow his nutritional routine, or have cocaine fuelled orgies with transvestite prostitutes like he does (The Times, Three Ronaldo Girls All had Men’s Tackle). Nor would they start taking PEDs if their sporting idols were to; at least not until they reached a high enough level of sport.
It is difficult to see how PEDs threaten team work, for in team sports being faster or stronger is no substitution for strategy and team work. Indeed some of the greatest exponents of football (arguably the greatest team sport of them all), the Ajax side of the 70s (Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, pp.218-234), and the Dynamo Kyiv side of the 60s (Ibid, pp.153-167), who were said to play ‘Total football’ (a style in which all players on the pitch would interchange positions at any tame, requiring supreme fitness); are accused of using PEDs to give them greater fitness which allowed them to play such an aesthetically pleasing and extremely successful team style (Ibid, pp.229-230).
Dedication and Commitment
As outline above PEDs aren’t a replacement for the dedication and commitment of full time training, merely and aid for it. Indeed you could argue that it is the ultimate dedication to chemically alter your body in pursuit of sporting greatness.
Respect for Rules and Laws
PEDs only subvert this point as long as PEDs are against the rules and laws; if the ban were to be lifted they would no longer be contrary to the rules. It has already happened with some substances. Caffeine used to be banned as it reduced the time to exhaustion by up to 20% (Foddy and Savulescu, p.511). However in 2004 WADA saw fit to remove it from its list of prohibited substances thus, with the stroke of a pen, meaning that those who took caffeine were no longer subverting the rules or laws of sport (WADA, Q&A: 2009 Prohibited List, p.3).
Respect for Yourself and Others
Opponents of PEDs could argue that users of PEDs do not respect others as they are gaining an unfair advantage, but as mentioned in the previous point, this is only due to the fact that is against the rules, if the rules were to change it would be fair to everyone. As for “being fair to yourself” if we were to test athletes purely for health it would be much more fair on the athletes as they wouldn’t be taking potentially harmful drugs only designed to be undetectable. Anti-PED campaigners Leon Kass and Eric Cohen use the argument that PEDs aren’t respectful to others in regards to past records. Kass and Cohen’s argument refers to the recent scandal in Major League Baseball surrounding Barry Bonds passing Babe Ruth’s all time home run record. Their argument is that Bonds taking anabolic steroids sullies his record as he has an advantage over past players and they aren’t on a level playing field (Kass and Cohen, For the Love of the Game, p.37). It is true the historical playing field isn’t even, but if you wanted an even playing field you would have to take away modern bat making technology, modern training regimes, nutritional programmes, coaching, sports medicine, bio-mechanical analysis, and many other integral parts of the modern game. Sport is ever evolving as technology evolves and the use of performance enhancing drugs is the next step in this evolution. If you were to genuinely question level playing fields then you would also have to question the fact that Bonds is black, as Ruth’s home run record came before the integration of all races into Major League Baseball. Even in the modern era there isn’t a level playing field as athletes are born with different genetic make-ups which give them different strengths and weaknesses. PEDs allow strengths to be built on and deficiencies reduced, arguably making the playing field more even than a world without PEDs.
This seems to imply that it is cowardly to take PEDs, but as mentioned above it is a huge commitment to try to attain success in any elite sport given the training and sacrifice an individual experiences it is courageous. Indeed, in the current climate it takes a lot of courage to take a substance that could be harmful as it has been designed to be undetectable not to be safe, not to mention the courage of potentially experiencing a lengthy ban for taking PEDs, and labelled a “cheat”.
Community and Solidarity
This, like fun and joy, is something which is an important part of sport. However, at the top level of sport, where beating your opposition is everything and you’re taught to hold the mentality that your opponent are your enemy, PEDs aren’t a threat to community or solidarity; the nature of win at all costs competition is. And whilst athletes are taught that winning is the ultimate goal PEDs should be allowed to assist them to these ends.
The current ban on performance enhancing drugs is ridiculous given WADAs guidelines for banning substances. To constitute a ban a substance must meet two of the following criteria to be banned, it must: have the potential to increase sporting performance. Or it must represent and actual or potential risk to the athletes health. Or its use must be contrary to the spirit or sport (WADA, World Anti-Doping Code, p.32-3). As I have outlined above any substance represents a ‘potential health risk’ if taken in too high of a quantity. I have also shown that performance enhancing drugs are not contrary to the spirit of sport. So it follows that as one of the WADA criteria is met by every substance on earth, thus making it absurd; and performance enhancing drugs aren’t contrary to the spirit of sport as outlined by WADA; performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport. That is not to say that performance enhancing drugs should be allowed in sport, but if we are to ban them then a better set of guidelines and a better formulation of the spirit of sport is required. For an essay on what such a definition of the spirit of sport might be please click on the Essays tab on the right.
An adapted version of this post was featured on stuff.co.nz
Donnelly, Peter, CHILD LABOUR, SPORT LABOUR: Applying Child Labour Laws to Sport, http://irs.sagepub.com.helicon.vuw.ac.nz/cgi/reprint/32/4/389
Foddy, Bennett, and Savulescu, Julian, Ethics of Performance Enhancement in Sport: Drugs and Gene doping, http://blackboard.vuw.ac.nz/@@B7F0444E27E7AF96D16880A72A8E794C/courses/1/2009.2.PHIL228/content/_713552_1/Spirit_of_Sport.pdf
Kass, Leon and Cohen, Eric, ‘For the Love of the Game’, The New Republic, March, 26, 2008 pp.34-42.
McGrath, Matt, Concerns Over Olympic Drug Test, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7516484.stm
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, Winning at Any Cost: Doping in Olympic Sports, http://www.casacolumbia.org/absolutenm/articlefiles/379-Winning%20At%20Any%20Cost.pdf
Savulescu, Julian, Why We Should Allow Performance Enhancing Drugs in Sport, http://blackboard.vuw.ac.nz/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_id=_2_1&url=/webapps/blackboard/execute/launcher%3ftype%3dCourse%26id%3d_39994_1%26url%3d
The Times, Three Ronaldo Girls All had Men’s Tackle, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/article3842374.ece
WADA, 2009 Anti-Doping Code, http://www.wada-ama.org/rtecontent/document/code_v2009_En.pdf
WADA, Q&A: 2009 Prohibited List, http://www.wada-ama.org/rtecontent/document/QA_List_OR.pdf
Wilson, Jonathan, Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, London, 2009.